On July 10th, Vancouver tape artist Ian William Craig will quietly emerge with what may end up one of 2016’s most celebrated avant-garde releases. Centres, his debut for FatCat’s re-energized 130701 imprint, is a melancholy, 73-minute suite performed on broken cassette players, thrifted reel-to-reels and desiccating tapes. With a classically trained, opera-ready voice, Craig’s hazy, blurry compositions lie somewhere between post-classical conceptual drift, gorgeous dream-pop, shoegaze fuzz, new age float and textural Kranky Records drone excursions — all performed on fragile machines on the verge of decay and collapse.
Originally a fan of fluffy, bombastic bands like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, Craig, 36, was turned on the dronier — but similarly majestic — fare of bands like Stars of the Lid and Godspeed You! Black Emperor while working at University of Alberta’s college radio station. He’s since become an accomplished visual artist and a critically acclaimed musician even though his multiple LP and cassette releases have all been pressed in editions of less than 1,000. Centres is his most widely distributed release yet, and will reboot FatCat’s 130701, the pioneering indie-classical label that helped launch Hauschka, Max Richter and more. Read our interview with Craig and hear the whole sweeping, pulsating, slow-crackling album below.
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What drew you to tape initially?
The first time that I heard the surface of tape was — maybe it’s a little cliché to say, but it was The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski. At that time those pieces really resonated with a lot of the research I was doing in printmaking. Printmaking is a very tactile visual art…. There’s an unpredictable nature to it and it resonates with ideas of loss of control and decay. With The Disintegration Loops it was like, “Oh man, you can actually feel … the thing of the music … the actual surface of it.” It was so powerful. I hadn’t considered that sound could have a physical surface to it. That was really profound.
I really don’t know what I’m doing in tape though. It’s just such a generous tactile experience. In the digital realm, when you peak something, that’s just it. The computer doesn’t actually understand anything past that because it doesn’t have any imagination and that’s as far as programming extends. So when you peak it or give it to much signal it goes, “Yeah, I’m out.” You get these really gross miscalculations, but not in a pleasant way. With tape it’s like pouring too much liquid into a glass. The glass doesn’t actually really care that you poured too much liquid into it. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m a glass … that’s cool. You can do whatever you want.” And it kind of cascades out the sides and does all of these really interesting things past the boundaries of how it was designed to act.
Your setup looks like a bunch of found artifacts kind of cobbled together….
Some of them I’ve collected, I’ve found at thrift shops. It’s actually a lot harder around here to find at thrift shops; they usually get scooped up. A lot of them have been donated or you find them on Craigslist quite often. I guess my setup at this point would be a little bit different than it has been because I’m planning for a tour through Europe, so one of the challenges there is to shrink things down. I’ve actually been trying to modify smaller cassette decks to do the same kind of things that the larger cassette decks do. I modify the tape decks so they don’t work properly…. Because it’s tape and not digital the effects are quite unpredictable. You’re dealing with magnetism. Sometimes when you try and layer another sound on top of it it doesn’t quite work very well or it smashes into the old sound in a really interesting way. That’s how most of the kind of decaying motifs are achieved.
You talk about the unpredictability of this stuff. Has there ever been a scenario where you where it was a piercing sound you couldn’t stop or something caught on fire — an unpredictability that was a little more than comfort?
It’s half as exciting. If a tape deck blew up in the middle of my set I think that actually would be pretty rad. But no, it just stops working. There’s nothing romantic about the sound of the tape deck actually dying. It just stops.
But no matter what, you’re dealing with delicate gear.
Yeah and I really appreciate that aspect of them. I think it’s really important to kind of contemplate ones own doom.
Is it hard finding tape in 2016?
No, actually it’s surprisingly easy. There are still a couple of dedicated companies that make it. If you want new mastering tape for example it’s probably a little more expensive than it used to be, but it’s quite easy to find. And there’s reams and reams and reams of old tape that you can do all kinds of stuff with. I like when it’s a little bit crusty.
Is there an emotion that you hope your music evokes in listeners?
One of my professors in grad school said that the best art went just past the the threshold of the absurd. There’s lots of things that we can’t put words to but we sort of know … it’s just right past reach. The best art just kind of crests that threshold. It just goes a little bit past the vanguard so we can still see it. We know it’s there but it’s still unreachable.
I guess the emotions that I feel when stuff passes that barrier, it’s kind of a combination of excitement and longing and sadness: Excitement that there’s something that I don’t understand that I could potentially and I can see it. And longing to be there, and kind of a sadness that it’s temporary. Those three things together I feel kind of make a sublime sense of melancholy. That’s one of my favorite feelings…. We’re all very fragile creatures doing really beautiful things and there’s a real sublime sadness to that. It’s quite beautiful, I think.
How did you find out that you were gonna be the first record to relaunch FatCat’s 130701?
It’s a huge dream come true in a lot of ways. 130701 was one of my favorite labels in the early 2000s probably. I actually enjoyed the the first Set Fire to Flames record more than the Godspeed output in a lot of ways. Max Richter floors me all of the time. It shouldn’t be as good as it is because it’s just so simple and … that can go so horribly wrong. It’s so sentimental and he’s doing all of the things that should not work at all. To be on this label that inspired me to start making music in the first place … I don’t know how that works.